Operation to lift helicopter wreckage from seabed suspended

‘Hugely challenging’ conditions for Naval Service divers trying to attach airbag

There has been snow on Achill's Slievemore, there has been frost, hail and wind, bright warm sunshine and Atlantic rain. Over the fortnight since Rescue 116 crashed off north Mayo, the relatives of two missing Irish Coast Guard airmen have endured an entire weather cycle during a long and harrowing wait.

And the wait continues for the families of winch team Paul Ormsby (53) and Ciaran Smith (38). After a painstaking operation over the past two days to partially lift the helicopter wreckage from the seabed off Blackrock island, work had to be suspended on Tuesday night.

"Hugely challenging" was how Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet Garda described the conditions for Naval Service divers who had spent the last two days attaching an airbag to the fixed cabin and rotor assembly area of the wreck at a depth of 40m.

“There’s an immense flow of water at this time of the year when there are spring tides,” said Supt Healy. “That means there’s three times the amount of water flowing through that channel than there normally would be.”


Guided by a shot line from the surface, the Naval Service divers working in pairs battled different groundswells and tidal streams which greatly affected their ability to manoeuvre, according to their colleagues.

Righting the wreck

The plan was to inflate the airbag from a low-pressure air hose connected to the surface, and monitor the lift or righting of the wreck with the high definition camera equipment on the Marine Institute’s remotely operated vehicle

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However, conditions proved “insurmountable”, and the airbag inflation “didn’t achieve sufficient volume”, said Irish Coast Guard operations manager Gerard O’Flynn.

The air hose attached to the air bag was “plugged” and secured on a floating mark for another attempt, possibly Wednesday.

“The work is ongoing and the objective remains the same, to right or move the wreck to carry out a visual inspection,” Mr O’Flynn said at a briefing on Blacksod pier just before 8pm.

"There is a plan to take that up again tomorrow or when the next window is available," Insp Gary Walsh of Mayo Garda division said, adding that the weather was "looking poor" for the next two or three days.

“Moving into the weekend the intensity of the tides will drop back and the forecast is more favourable,” Mr O’Flynn said. “But a shift of wind can make a big difference out there.”

Spring tides

The Garda Water Unit divers worked again around Blackrock island on Tuesday, and air, sea and shore searches are continuing as the spring tides are only affecting the dive site.

The RNLI all-weather Achill and inshore Sligo and Bundoran lifeboats were at sea in recent days, with gardaí and Civil Defence teams visiting the Inishkea islands to the north – also searched by local fishermen last week.

The bodies of the winch team's two colleagues, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45) and Capt Mark Duffy (51), have been recovered, as has the Sikorsky S-92's "black box" or combined flight recorders, which are being examined for data download in Britain.

Capt Duffy's funeral takes place in his home village of Blackrock, Co Louth, on Thursday, and his family have asked that any donations be given to the RNLI and and have said that "Mark's wish would be for you to carry an organ donor card".

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times